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Ted Kulfan's NHL conference finals preview: Can Lightning finally finish the deal?

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Maybe the Tampa Bay Lightning have finally gotten the hang of this.

The Lightning, having impressively eliminated Boston — which had the NHL’s best regular-season record — in the second round, have reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the fourth time in six seasons.

Tampa Bay opens the series Monday against the New York Islanders, who eliminated Philadelphia Saturday in Game 7.

Center Anthony Cirelli celebrates his goal as Tampa Bay eliminates Boston.

But for all of the Lightning’s success, they have yet to win a Stanley Cup since the 2003-04 season. And they entered these playoffs with the nightmare of being eliminated in four games in the first round last year after dominating through the regular season.

Last year’s bitter disappointment was particularly crushing, eyebrow-raising, and brought into question the Lightning’s character.

But the way Tampa Bay has gone about their business in these playoffs, after a four-month hiatus due to COVID-19 and the way they handled the Bruins, is making many analysts believe this Tampa Bay roster is different.

Maybe the Lightning have finally learned from all their disappointments.

"We're a proud group in that room," said Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman after the series victory over Boston. "We know what we want and we're not going to take no for an answer. I'm so proud of every single one in there."

Over in the West, Vegas and Dallas both needed Game 7s to win their second-round series.

Now in the Western Conference finals Vegas will be the favorite, but that’s just fine with Dallas.

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Dallas was thought to be inferior to Colorado, and the Stars are learning to enjoy the role of underdog.

“This is a whole new challenge for us,” Stars coach Rick Bowness said. “I know they're the favorites, based on the regular season, based on the round-robin, as they should be. That's fine. We've been the underdog in the other two series as well. 

"The challenge is that this is very a deep team, and this is a very experienced heavy team, and they're going to come at us and we understand that.”

Here is a preview of the conference finals:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

(2) Tampa Bay vs. (7) N.Y. Islanders

►Records: Tampa Bay 43-21-6, .657; N.Y. Islanders 35-23-10, .588.

►Playoffs: Tampa Bay — Round robin, 2-1-0; first round, beat Columbus in five; second round, beat Boston in five. N.Y. Islanders — Play-in round, beat Florida in four; first round, beat Washington in six; second round, beat Philadelphia in seven.

►Storylines: The Islanders won two of three games over Tampa Bay during the regular season. But right now, Tampa Bay is arguably playing as well as anyone left in the playoffs. But the Islanders have been the surprise of these playoffs. Their suffocating defensive style has worked to perfection against offensive teams such as Washington and Philadelphia.

►Key player: Islanders C Mat Barzal is probably the team’s most explosive and creative offensive player. This will be a big test for the youngster.

►Prediction: Tampa Bay in 5.

Joel Kiviranta, left, and Denis Gurianov eliminated Colorado on Friday night.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

(1) Vegas vs. (3) Dallas

►Records: Vegas 39-24-8, .606; Dallas 37-24-8, .594.

►Playoffs: Vegas — Round robin, 3-0-0; first round, beat Chicago in five; second round, beat Vancouver in seven. Dallas — Round robin, 1-2-0; first round, beat Calgary in six; second round, beat Colorado in seven.

►Storylines: Vegas won two of the three games during the regular season, one of those victories in a shootout. Both teams saw 3-1 series leads disappear in the second round before escaping with Game 7 victories. Vegas has the edge in depth and speed, and confidence in both of its goalies (Robin Lehner, Marc-Andre Fleury). Dallas, one of the worst offensive teams during the regular season, has suddenly become dangerous with unlikely heroes such as LW Joel Kiviranta, who scored three goals (including the game-winner) in Game 7 against Colorado.

►Key player: Dallas G Anton Khudobin. Either Khudobin or Ben Bishop must step up and provide confidence they can consistently stop pucks. Khudobin is likely to get first crack.

►Prediction: Vegas in 6.

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter @tkulfan